ST. LOUIS — Fees paid by thousands of Missouri businesses to help fund state water regulation are expiring Friday, creating fears of delays and red tape.
The fees provide more than one-quarter of the funding for Missouri's water enforcement program and are paid by commercial developers, home builders, utilities, manufacturers and livestock producers for permission to discharge wastewater or divert storm water into streams and lakes.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources earlier this year sought to have the fees renewed, but the Republican-led Senate refused. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that officials think there is enough money to continue state water enforcement for several months but that Missouri also is exploring options such as allowing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to handle water enforcement.
EPA spokesman Kris Lancaster said Missouri has discussed allowing the federal agency to take over. Lancaster said that Congress intended for states to handle water protection duties but local officials can opt out after giving notice of 180 days.
"It is not our desire to take over," Lancaster said. "We are working with the state and awaiting their final decision."
Business groups fear that letting the EPA handle water permits could cause delays and make it harder to recruit new industry.
"You don't fix a program by destroying it," said Roger Walker, the executive director for the Regulatory Environmental Group for Missouri that represents businesses in regulatory matters. "It's just ludicrous to think of these permitting duties going to EPA."
Relations between the Republican Senate and the Department of Natural Resources soured after lawmakers launched an investigation into the delayed reporting of high E. coli bacteria levels at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Sen. Brad Lager, who led the committee conducting the inquiry, said that before the water fees are renewed, the Department of Natural Resources should meet with the businesses to resolve complaints such as taking too long to process permits. Lager, R-Savannah, said he has been trying to make that happen for more than a year.
"DNR is like the Kremlin, where they're deciding how they're going to hurt people because they don't like them," Lager said. "I'm not going to let DNR become to state government what the EPA is to federal government. They are probably the largest hindrance to economic prosperity in this country."
Publicly, the state has said little about the expiring fees.
The governor's office did not respond to written questions submitted by the newspaper. DNR said in a written statement that it looks "forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly during the coming session to ensure that Missouri businesses can continue to fulfill their permitting requirements at the state level."
Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said water regulation is a necessary function of state government and that he wanted to renew the fees to avoid a federal takeover.
Others warn that even if the water fees were extended, they need to be examined. The current fees have been criticized because some industries, such as some animal farms, pay less than the cost of issuing the permit, though businesses contend existing fees should be extended until a broader review is possible.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a former deputy DNR director, said the state needs to evaluate the fees but that Nixon's office has resisted it.
"Saying, 'Just continue the fees for another year,' is passing the buck," said Schaefer, R-Columbia.